Of great minds and ‘little Taj Mahals of egos’

Sethi, Mueenuddin and Naqvi have the crowd in sporadic fits of laughter while discussing writers and their quirks.

Aisha Iqbal February 07, 2011

KARACHI: “I’m never afraid to make a fool of myself...before the camera starts rolling,” said the thin, wiry Sunil Sethi. Seated between a shiny-pated HM Naqvi and a twinkly-eyed Daniyal Mueenuddin, Sethi was comfortable, witty, articulate. Not a surprise since he has been running his own TV show, Just Books, in which he has been interviewing writers and “great minds” for over six years.

The brightly lit, uncomfortably cold Maharani was filled, mostly with aunties in crisp clothes and even crisper accents. Before the event, the launch of “The Big Bookshelf: Suni Sethi in Conversation with 30 Famous Writers”, kicked off, Sethi and Mueenuddin were handed Espresso coffee, which Sethi then proceeded to share with Naqvi, pouring it into the large champagne glass on the table.

Moderator Ameena Saiyid was sweet but not terribly deft. Sethi’s book has been all sold out, she told the audience, but you can still find Naqvi and Mueenuddin’s books at the stalls outside! As she read out Sethi’s impressive biographic details in loud monotones, Mueenuddin daydreamed with his chin in his palm and Naqvi almost fell off his chair, a cute, squirrel-like grin appearing on his face.

“What’s wonderful about the Karachi Literature Festival is that it has warmth, an intimacy,” Sethi said, adding, “I hope it retains that.”

He talked of his book, what the digital age has done to media and literature. He said he barely gets home from work and the internet is exploding with his show and Twitter alerts from the authors he’s barely finished interviewing. “How can they be concentrating on the interview and be tweeting at the same time!”

The purpose behind his book was to contrast and write not just about “how writers write, the process, their inspirations but how the writers and the writers’ world has changed”.

Sethi then asked the writers on his sides to interview him.

“Which books inspired you?” asked Mueenuddin. “I live in a house actually constructed of books,” Sethi replied, explaining how he gets around 25 books a week to review or to put on his show. He has books all over the house and he donates them to charities, schools and boutiques for “decoration”. The latest consignment is going to be sent to a jail in Delhi.

“Are you so good that you can get the writers to bare their souls to you?” asked Naqvi, a question he rephrased continuously in a bid to get Sethi to reveal his “secrets and tricks”. But Sethi battled them off like an expert. “I’m not good at all. It’s the writers who are so good to share.” Sethi said initially he had given his show “six weeks” with the expectation that he’d be then “rapidly unemployed”.

Naqvi confessed that he was very uncomfortable “interfacing with his audience”. He finds being interviewed unsettling. “I’m curious,” he tried again, “are their any tricks that you use to get through to writers, who are sequestered in their minds and rooms for eight hours a day?”

It is a two-way process, Sethi replied, drawing a parallel between writers and journalists. Just like you employ journalistic techniques to research and find out about your topics and subjects, so do I, he told Naqvi.

Of course not all writers like to be interviewed, he added to which Naqvi quickly interposed: Who has refused to come on Sethi’s show to be interviewed? Jhumpa Lahiri was one, a point seized, pounced on and shredded in mock anger by Mueenuddin: “You know, I just don’t get these writers!” he said. “It’s so silly.” For him, writing was like any other business, say like producing Coca Cola. If the soft drink makers weren’t allowed to “have a temperament”, why should writers? You’ve made a product, you should be able to talk about it if someone asks you. Writers write to entertain and books as products are “perhaps a little more sophisticated than TV”.

“You have to be charming. The key is to listen, to pay attention,” continued Sethi on how to get writers to talk about their work. He always chats to the person he’s interviewing before the show starts and tries to make them comfortable. He recalled the show with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, which had had him “perspiring”.

“You’ve talked of the greater minds you’ve interviewed, what about some of the lesser minds,” asked the cheeky Naqvi, looking down at a piece of paper, “I see your list has Jeffery Archer in there...”

The question-and-answer session was brief. Mueenuddin told a tall, loud questioner who asked him if he treats his art as a commodity that there are two sides to writing. “You write what is beautiful and true but once the beautiful and true is out, you want it to sell.”

“I hate it when writers try and make their role into one of high priests!” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2011.


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